Conservatives are moving quickly to remould education into their conservative vision. In the US, the Right’s assault on public education is intensifying. Curricula are being supplanted with far-right material that flagrantly distorts America’s racial history and climate science. In Britain, the ever-growing academisation of schools erodes power from local authorities, enabling educators, often unqualified, to set their own curriculums and rules, which are sometimes proving unorthodox. It begs the question: Is another unwelcome American import coming to Britain, where the political Right often look to US counterparts for ideological inspiration?

In America, a dirty war on history and education is raging.

The Republican stronghold of Arizona is advocating for a curriculum that caters for the far-right. Earlier this year, the state’s education chief and an unaccredited, conservative media and education company known as PragerU, announced that Arizona would allow the use of the organisation’s ideological content as part of approved classroom curriculum. The non-profit has become a fundraising goliath, attracting big conservative donors. Promoting climate-crisis denialism and other ‘anti-woke’ staples, PragerU says it creates content that “advances Judeo-Christian values” and portrays a view of American science and history that is based more on ideological views than evidence. It has vowed to disrupt classrooms in Arizona with a propaganda-like curriculum and establish similar partnerships in every state.

Among its most controversial content is an animated video where the radical abolitionist Frederick Douglas is co-opted into a right wing message that tells children that slavery was a “compromise.”

The approval of far-right material for classrooms, alongside the banning of books and material that mention gay people, racism or sexuality, has drawn a backlash from Democrats and educators. Warnings have been made that allowing such inaccurate representations of history into the classroom does pupils a disservice and will put them at an academic disadvantage later in life.

Meanwhile, in Florida, schools are facing pressure about ‘nudity.’ A picture book that showed an illustration of a goblin’s bare bottom was removed from shelves. School officials even coloured in a pair of pants on the goblin to save students from such debauchery.

Much of the right-wing puritan drive in education in the US comes from a group known as Moms for Liberty. The co-founders of what has been described as an ‘extremist’ group are linked to anti-LGBTQ politicians, public figures and media outlets. In 2022, the group reportedly received significant funding from the right-wing think-tank, the Heritage Foundation, which has spent years campaigning against marriage equality and other LGBTQ-inclusive policies. The same year, the think-tank awarded Moms 4 Liberty a prize for ‘citizenship’ and $25,000.

Similar rumblings in Britain?

The Heritage Foundation is closely connected to Conservative politicians in the UK. Liz Truss, Oliver Dowden and Priti Patel have all made speeches at the think-tank. It is also home to the bizarre Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom.

Many a UK Conservative embrace the radical right-wing politics coming from such powerful US think-tanks. Just look at Liz Truss. Warnings were made that it would spell disaster if Truss sought to replicate the tactics of the hardline free-market groups she was closely connected to like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). She took no notice and looked to her US think-tank allies for inspiration as PM and for her ‘mini-budget’ and disaster submerged the county.

While not (yet) on the same scale, there are signs that the US’s ideological war on education is being imported to the UK.

Like Conservatives in America, the argument that the ‘crisis’ in schools is about ‘woke’ teachers propagandising critical race theory and giving pupils pronouns is gaining impetus in Britain.

Tory MP Miriam Cates has demanded a full ban on trans student’s gender identity being recognised in schools.

Meanwhile, a high school in Derbyshire was forced to cancel a Pride event following the moral outrage the LBTGQ+ event attracted among some parents, and was stirred up by the right-wing press. Hell, even Fox News got hold of that story.

Critical race theory

UK Conservatives’ controversial crack down on teaching materials in schools has been going on for several years. In 2020, the government was accused of misrepresenting critical race theory. Over 80 leading academics specialising in education and social sciences voiced concern about a pattern of statements and guidance from politicians ‘proscribing’ certain resources and bodies of work from classrooms. That year, the Department for Education issued guidance that schools should not under any circumstance use resources produced by organisations that take ‘extreme political stances.’ The Coalition of Anti-Racist Educators (Care) and Black Educators Alliance (BEA) warned the guidance would prevent teachers from using material from groups like Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion, and thereby limit anti-racism teaching.

Kemi Badenoch drew criticism for comments that teachers who presented the idea of white privilege as a fact to students were breaking the law and that critical race theory was an “ideology that sees my blackness as victimhood and their whiteness as oppression.”

For the academics opposing the exclusion of certain materials in schools, dissent, diversity and critique are the ‘lifeblood of democracy’ and of educational experience. They warn that policymakers are in danger of stifling the climate of pluralism on which democracy depends.

 “At a time when racism is on the rise, in Britain and globally, teachers and pupils can benefit from the tools and resources developed by critical race theorists to understand how racism operates across society, including in education. 

“To target this body of theory at this moment in time amounts to an attack on Black scholars and activists who are already struggling against racial injustice,” said the academics

What Works

The groundwork for ideological warfare on education in Britain was laid a decade ago. In 2013, the UK government launched the What Works network to improve the way the government and other public sector organisations design and deliver policies through ‘the best’ research evidence available. However, concerns have been raised that using the What Works scientifically-objective and evidence-led strategy in education doesn’t work. Ian Cushing, senior lecturer in English and Education at Edge Hill University has researched the strategy in an education setting. He warns that the What Works-based education policy is neither objective nor neutral.

“It normalises white, middle-class language and can result in the use of non-standard, non-academic language being disciplined in schools,” Cushing writes in the Conversation.

The academic found that in one London school which used the ‘evidence-led’ curriculum, teachers were encouraged to correct how their pupils spoke, while avoiding language deemed to deviate from standard norms. Cushing noted how black children kept quiet or produced minimal answers, which they were further criticised for. He warned that ‘what works’ materials risk reproducing “anti-black prejudice.”

“Being made to internalise the ideology that their language was deficient resulted in their identity being eroded,” he said.

Michaela Community School

Similar concerns were raised this week about Michaela Community School Trust in Brent, north London. The school hit the headlines, with two former pupils claiming the rules at the school disproportionately adversely affected Muslim students.

Ran with military precision, where students have to be silent in corridors and focus on teachers extensively during lessons, the secondary school has earned the title of ‘Britain’s strictest school.’

Yet the school has been praised for producing excellent results and has an outstanding Ofsted rating. This is despite facing a court challenge for its ‘prayer ban,’ which the former pupils say made being Muslim ‘seem toxic’ and ‘evil.’

It may come as little surprise to learn that the headteacher of Michaela School is Katherine Birbalsingh – aka the ‘strictest headteacher in Britain.’ Birbalsingh, who is also the school’s founder, introduced the prayer ban policy in March 2023, despite approximately 700 students at the school being Muslim. Pupils at the school said the rule had stripped them of their Islamic identity. One of the former pupils told the BBC that she felt that Ms Birbalsingh was “trying to villainise us.”

Birbalsingh and the Conservative Party

The school’s infamous headteacher has close ties to the Conservative Party, most notably, Suella Braverman. Birbalsingh reportedly asked Braverman to be involved in the school, following the then state teacher’s infamous tirade against Britain’s “broken” educational system at the Conservative Party conference in 2010. The scathing attack on state schools was met by enthusiastic nods by Michael Gove, then education minister. It also gained Birbalsingh eminence in Conservative circles. In 2020, the headteacher received a CBE in Boris Johnson’s honours list.

From its inception, the Michaela Community School received substantial funding from Gove’s department, including gifting the school its building. It is one of approximately 650 ‘Free Schools’ in Britain, which are broadly similar to the US’s patriotic charter schools, aimed at attracting families with Christian nationalist beliefs.

The Free Schools scheme was championed by Michael Gove during the coalition government. Part of David Cameron’s Big Society vision, the scheme was one of a succession of education reforms that expanded Labour’s academy scheme. Academy schools are state-funded, but unlike other state-funded schools, are independent from local authorities. The idea being that without council management, there is more freedom on how a school is run. In reality however, tens of millions of public money is being used to ‘prop up’ poorly managed academy schools. Free Schools operate in law as academies. They are state-funded but not controlled by the local authority, so, like academies, have much wider control over their teaching and budgets. They can be set up by teachers, parents or voluntary groups. While they are not allowed to make a profit, Free Schools can commission private companies to provide services to the school. Opponents to the scheme believe they lead to an unequal education system where the wealthiest in society continue to control the education resources. Concern has also been raised about the lack of accountability, with free schools being immune to regulation from the government.

Braverman has been a leading backer of Free Schools. Writing in ConHome in 2019, she approved of Boris Johnson’s revival of Free Schools, and praised the Michaela Community School, acknowledging that she was part of its founding team. “Today, Michaela is transforming lives,” she wrote. Braverman also authored the Fight for Free Schools paper published by the right-wing think-tank the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) the same year.

Suella Braverman is not the only Tory to be linked to the infamous Michaela School. Sir Anthony Seldon is listed as a guarantor of the school’s Trust, along with Braverman and Neil Mahapatra, an investment manager and Tory donor. Seldon is an educator, political biographer, and honorary historical advisor to No 10. His father co-founded the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), the think-tank that took credit for Liz Truss’s doomed mini-budget and has been accused of offering US donors access to UK government ministers.

In pulling publicly-funded comprehensives away from local authority management into the hands of ‘educational entrepreneurs,’ academisation is driving down staff pay, terms and conditions, alienating communities and causing the fragmentation of the education system, the NEU has warned. As per the infamous Michaela Community School, so-called Free Schools have proven controversial for their sometimes-unorthodox approaches to education. Couple this with policies that normalise white, middle-class language, and the cracking down on certain teaching materials like critical race theory, and the evidence that ideology is overwhelming education becomes more and more difficult to avoid. Education is supposed to be about opening children’s minds, valuing their experience and developing critical thinking. These hard-right policies do the exact opposite, and do you know what is really odd – their ideas developed traction as they say, because it was we on the left who were supposed to be the ideologues.   

Right-Wing Media Watch – Tory press calls for ‘tolerance’ following Sunak’s ‘no place for extremism’ speech – yes, really!

On Friday March 1, Rishi Sunak delivered an address outside No. 10, criticising ‘extremists’ who had ‘taken over the streets.’ He demanded Britain unites against extremism, and cited both rising antisemitism and Islamophobia, saying he would back the police in making a tougher stance against the ‘poison’ on the streets.

The following day, the speech was splashed across the front pages of the very newspapers that have been vilifying and demonising Muslim communities for years and stirring up the hatred and division the prime minister was calling out.

“We must draw the line,” headlined the Daily Mail, which devoted analysis of the speech to its front page, saying it was what Britain ‘needed to hear.’

“Democracy is under threat” was the Telegraph’s headline. The newspaper described the speech as essentially an “appeal to the nation” to stand up to right-wing and Islamist extremism.

“We’ll beat this poison,” pontificated the Express, which said Sunak’s address was a ‘dramatic intervention.’

‘Banish this hatred from our streets,’ implores PM,’ splashed the Times. While the Sun said that it hopes that this will be seen as ‘a turning point.’

A well-established body of research has concluded that British news media represents Muslims within a largely negative framework. As such, the ‘tolerance’ preaching coverage of the hastily organised speech by a media that has contributed to Islamophobia for decades, reeks of hypocrisy.

major analysis by the Muslim Council of Britain in 2019 showed that most coverage of Muslims in British news outlets has a negative slant. The study found that the Mail on Sunday was the worst offender, with 78 percent of its stories featuring Muslims having negative themes – above an already-high industry average of 59 percent.

Press coverage aside, Sunak’s speech represented a new low, even by the Tories’ standards, sharing the same hypocrisy as the media that pontificated about it. The prime minister used George Galloway’s win in the Rochdale by-election to denounce extremism, to criticise the protests over Gaza, and to raise fears about ‘democracy’ being under attack.

He also managed to denounce extremism without mentioning the reason he was forced to make the hurriedly put together speech in the first place. Following the comments of Lee Anderson, who until recently was the party’s deputy chair, who accused Sadiq Khan of having handed over London to Muslims, the party became embroiled in accusations (long overdue) of Islamophobia. But of course, this wasn’t mentioned in the PM’s last-minute address to the nation. Nor was the former home secretary Suella Braverman’s claims that the Islamists, extremists, and antisemites are in charge now. Nor was Tory MP Paul Scully’s claims there were parts of Tower Hamlets and Birmingham that were ‘no-go’ areas for non-Muslims.

Not many media outlets or political figures called out the speech and its coverage for its double standards. Ed Davey did though.

“The British people will take no lessons from a Prime Minister and Conservative party who have sowed the seeds of division for years.

“This is the same Prime Minister who made Suella Braverman his Home Secretary and Lee Anderson his party’s Deputy Chairman,” he said

Moral outrage among politicians should always be approached with caution, but Sunak’s selectivity and that of his media allies, was so disingenuous as to become positively offensive.

Smear of the Week – Douglas Murray launches extraordinary attack on Hope Not Hate

Douglas Murray, the associate editor of the Bible of the Right – the Spectator – holds no prisoners in his virulent attacks on those he possibly deems as a threat. In November, his target was Humza Yousaf, who he suggested was an “infiltrator,” and described his Palestinian wife Nadia El-Nakla as a “nasty piece of work.”

More recently, the unhinged right-wing provocateur took aim at Hope Not Hate (HNH). The UK’s largest anti-racism and anti-extremism movement has been featured in the mainstream media of late for investigations involving the Conservatives.  Polling commissioned by HNH following Lee Anderson’s claim that the London mayor is controlled by Islamists, found that the majority of Conservative party members share Anderson’s views, thinking that Islam is a threat to the British way of life.

“It’s clear from the events of the past week that Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment run deep in the Conservative party,” wrote Nick Lowles, chief executive of HNH wrote in an op-ed in the Guardian.

The group recently announced it was opposing London mayor Conservative candidate Susan Hall following investigations which exposed Hall’s engagement in what HNH describe as a cache of racist social media activity.

The citing of such findings in mainstream news sources like the Guardian and the BBC has obviously been grating on the nerves of Murray.

‘The sinister tactics of Hope Not Hate,’ he splashed. The headline could be deemed as ironic, given the deeply sinister nature of the rest of the column. The author spends the first few paragraphs laying into Torsten Bell, chief exec of the Resolution Foundation, which he derides as a boring organisation that blames all the UK’s ills on Tory cuts.

But Murray becomes especially bitter when he turns to Hope Not Hate. He describes the group’s investigations as ‘crack journalism,’ which are picked up by the BBC.

“If anyone had any doubt that HNH is not, in fact, an anti-fascist organisation they might note several things. First – there aren’t many fascists around. We don’t like them in Britain. Perhaps thanks to a dearth of targets or perhaps because it’s full of far-left ideologues, HNH some while ago decided that its targets should be Ukip, Nigel Farage, Brexiteers and the Tory party.”

I did warn you that the column was ironic and sinister. He claims there aren’t many fascists in Britain when he himself has written passionately in support of the British fascist Tommy Robinson. Murray has been described as holding Islamophobic views and ideologies, and accused of the promotion of far-right ideas such as Cultural Marxism conspiracy theories.  His book The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam was described by political journalist Gaby Hinsliff as “gentrified xenophobia” in which little definition of the European culture he claims is under threat is offered. Yet for Murray, it is HNH, an organisation dedicated solely to challenge mistrust and racism, that is deploying sinister tactics.

Murray is also a vocal critic of Sadiq Khan, having once accused the London mayor of ‘cynical grime grandstanding,’ (whatever that’s meant to mean) in his Telegraph column. Would it be too sinister to suggest that the right-wing firebrand is deliberately going after Hope Not Hate for their damning investigations involving alleged racism by Khan’s Tory rival?

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

The post The Right’s ideological war on education appeared first on Left Foot Forward: Leading the UK’s progressive debate.

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